Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Facebook really wants me to take a trip to Iceland

Over the past few months, I've been getting notifications, updates and advertisements in my Facebook feed such as this:
And this:
And this:
And this:
It's true that I am making another trip you Europe in a couple of weeks (we're going to spend another week at the delightful Austrian Alpine town we discovered two years ago, and we're also going to take an Adriatic cruise out of Venice as well as spend some time exploring Slovenia), so it's possible that my online searches for airfare, hotels, activities and the like have influenced Facebook's advertising algorithms. But why the barrage of advertisements about Iceland? I haven't made any searches on anything Iceland-related.

It's probably just a quirk of the general run-up to summer travel season: airlines, hotels and tour operators are looking for business, and Iceland appears to be the trendy place to visit right now. Among other things, Iceland is a filming location for HBO's popular Game of Thrones series. Furthermore, both of Iceland's major air carriers, Icelandair and WOW, are trying to position the arctic nation as a convenient stopover point between Europe and North America. They actually encourage visitors not to merely change planes in Iceland, but to actually spend a few days there during their trans-Atlantic journey, thereby pumping tourist money into the Icelandic economy. My brother did this a couple of years ago when he flew from Denver to Prague via Iceland.

I'd love to do the same thing one day; Iceland is definitely on my Places to Visit list, and it certainly seems like a logical stopover spot for future trips to Europe. But as of right now, there's really no point in my doing so. There are no direct flights between Houston and Iceland.

The lack of direct flights to Iceland, be they seasonal or year-round, makes Houston something on an anomaly. In recent years both Icelandic carriers have been very aggressive in connecting to US destinations. This is why there are currently flights from Keflavik International Airport to places such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Portland. Even Anchorage, Alaska has seasonal service to Iceland's main airport. (Domestic carriers American, Delta and United also serve Iceland, but not nearly to the extent that Icelandair and WOW do.)

But not Houston. (Also conspicuously absent from the list of destinations served directly from Keflavik is the busiest airport in North America: Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson. Go figure.)

 if I want to go to Iceland my nearest starting point would be Dallas/Fort Worth, where all of American Airlines, Icelandair and WOW currently provide direct service. However, given that so many European destinations can already be reached from Bush Intercontinental via Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines (Istanbul is technically in Europe...) and United - even Singapore Airlines makes a stop in Manchester - why would I bother going to DFW just so I can make a stop in Iceland on my way to Europe?

So why aren't there any direct flights between Iceland and the USA's fourth-largest city? Maybe Icelandair and WOW think they have the Texas market covered through DFW.  Maybe Houston's on their list of future destinations to serve once they have the right equipment. Maybe their calculations have shown that service to Houston just doesn't make economic sense. Maybe Icelanders just hate Houston. Who knows?

I'm counting down the days to my summer vacation; I will be flying from Houston to Frankfurt on United, where I will transfer to a Lufthansa flight to Venice. Perhaps I'll get a look at Iceland out the window while I'm in route, and I will wave hello.

But until there is nonstop service from Houston to Iceland, I won't be visiting. And that's going to be the case no matter how many advertisements for Iceland pop up in my Facebook feed. 

(Useless fact: if I were of Icelandic descent, my name would be Thomas Horacesson because Iceland uses patronymic names, whereby your last name is your father's first name plus -sson or -sdottir (daughter). Kirby, likewise, would be Kirby Thomasson. His mother's name would be Lori Larrysdottir.)

Friday, June 08, 2018

Thirty years ago today

Sometime in the late afternoon of Wednesday, June 8, 1988, I stepped foot in Ecuador for the very first time.

This wasn't my first trip outside of the United States, by any means. Even at the age of 14, I had already been to Canada and Mexico several times, and I had even taken a trip to Britain and Ireland with my parents just a few years earlier.

But this wasn't a family vacation; we weren't going to Ontario to visit some friends or to Cancún to sit on a beach. We were going to live in an obscure Latin American country for the summer because my father had been awarded a Fulbright fellowship to teach at a couple of universities in Quito. It turned out for me to be a true adventure; an eye-opening, life changing experience.

Getting there was an adventure in itself. Back then, the only way to get to Ecuador was through Miami. In the early hours of Tuesday June 7th my brother, my mother and I took a cab to Hobby Airport, where we boarded a Delta flight to Atlanta and then caught another plane to Miami (why fly directly to Miami when you can save a few bucks by going through Hartsfield...). Imagine our surprise when we got to the Ecuatoriana Airlines counter at MIA and were informed that the airline would not be making a flight to Quito that day; this was our first indication that Ecuadorian civil aviation regarded posted itineraries are mere suggestions. A night in a Miami hotel and one extremely turbulent ride aboard an aging Boeing 707 a day later, I finally found myself in the Andes Mountains.

We lived in apartment on the top floor of what was then the Hotel Los Andes on the eastern ridge of Quito, overlooking the city. Mount Pichincha sat directly in front of us. After every sunset, the city would glow with amber sodium light until the fog crept in from the surrounding peaks and valleys and obscured everything. It was amazing to watch.

We marveled at the ridiculously-low cost of living there (the constant devaluation of the Sucre made everything from groceries to restaurant meals to taxi rides to Spanish lessons dirt cheap for those with dollar-based accounts). We ate out at a different restaurant every night.

Our hotel, as it turned out, was located right behind the British Embassy. Right next to the British Embassy was a bar and restaurant called - go figure! - El Pub. Because it was so close to our hotel, this restaurant became a regular lunch and dinner spot for us.

El Pub's waiter's name was Pepe. We got to know him very well. And even though we had memorized the dessert menu simply because we had been there so often, we would always ask him to repeat it, because we liked the way he struggled to pronounce the word "cheesecake." (Pepe would always say "chiz-KEK.") My brother and I thought it was funny. My mom thought we were being assholes for making him say it.

My brother and I enrolled to the One-to-One Spanish School close to downtown Quito which, as its name implies, featured a student-to-teacher ratio of 1:1. I probably will never speak Spanish any better than I did that summer, as I spent several hours every day practicing, conversing and learning new vocabulary with my personal instructor.

We didn't drink the tap water in Quito; it was lethal unless it was boiled. We used Güitig mineral water for everything, including brushing our teeth. Even so, I ended up with more stomach ailments in one summer than most people should endure in a lifetime; amoxicillin and imodium became my gastrointestinal friends.

Sure, there was culture shock and homesickness. Many an afternoon, after One-to-One clases were over, I would walk over to the "mercado negro" section of the Santa Clara Market to purchase "illicit" American goods (for example, an exhorbitantly-priced can of Dr.  Pepper out of a 12-pack somebody brought down from Miami, or a bag of M&Ms) before taking a taxi home. (We took taxis everywhere; Quito did not have a mass transit system other than buses, which were smoky and crowded and they never completely stopped at intersections so you had to get a "running start" to get on or jump off.) Sometimes after I got back to the hotel I'd open a window and sip my illicit imported soft drink and stare out over the city of Quito, waiting for dad to return and longing to be back home in Houston, where the climate probably was hot, but where the water was drinkable and the people spoke English.

Quito did not have a real McDonald's in 1988. I really could have used an occasional Quarter Pounder and some fries as comfort food back then.

We took trips around the country. Lots of them.

We took a trip up to the slopes of Mount Cotopaxi, the iconic volcano south of Quito. We drove above the snow line, and my brother and I had a snowball fight.

We went to the Mitad del Mundo monument that marks the location of the Equator. Many years later I would discover that its location is probably inaccurate.

We met a driver from the Hotel Quito taxi pool,very close to our hotel, who advertised day and multiple-night tours. His name was Hugo. He took us along the winding, narrow Pan-American Highway to the market in Otavalo, north of Quito (and ancestral home to these folks, who today sell their products all over the world) and as well as the leather-making town of Cotacachi.

Sometime in late June, my aunt Dorothy from Temple, Texas came down to stay with us and to experience Ecuador for herself. Hugo crammed all of us into his taxi and took us to the jungle, by way of the Hacienda la Cienega - an amazing Spanish colonial plantation turned into a hotel - and the delightful town of Baños, with its waterfalls and volcanic baths.

Somewhere outside of Baños, along the highway that parallels the steep valley of the Rio Pastaza, the roadway's asphalt was replaced by gravel and Hugo said "adiós, civilización." We had reached "La Selva" - Ecuador's outback-esque Amazonian jungle.

We got to the Rio Napo, parked the taxi, and loaded ourselves into a motorized water canoe that took us to a hotel downstream that could only be accessed by boat. On the way there, Hugo warned us about "The Monkey" that lived at the hotel and apparently had a habit of biting people.

We got to the hotel and got out of the canoe. I walked around the hotel grounds, deep within the jungle. Everything was lush and green. There were butterflies everywhere. There were colorful birds flying around. There were termites crawling back and forth between trees in termite tubes. There was a black and brown spider monkey that appeared out of nowhere, ambled right up to me and, before I could do anything, crawled up my legs and torso, wrapped itself around my shoulders, and sat atop my head. Was this The Monkey that bit people? I was petrified. I didn't know what to do.

Fortunately, Hugo appeared. I thought he would help me get the curious animal off my head. But he just smiled. "Be careful, Tommy, that is The Monkey," he said as he walked past me.

The Monkey's name was Ramón, and he actually became my friend while we were in the jungle. He would wrap his prehensile tail around my wrist and lead me all around the hotel's grounds. He'd do the same to my brother. Ramón was fascinating and protective, always looming over us from the trees as my brother and I walked through the jungle.

He never bit either of us.

My brother and I found a creek with a large vine hanging above it. We discovered we could swing from the vine, Tarzan-style, and drop ourselves right into the middle of the creek. It was fun.

In the jungle, it was Hugo's turn to have intestinal discomfort; I guess even native Ecuadorians can fall victim to the myriad bacteria that grows down there. He begged us not to tell "El Brujo" - the native witchdoctor that we were going to visit on a jungle tour one day - that he was sick, because he was very skeptical of the witchdoctor's "cures."

We didn't tell the witchdoctor when we met him. He found out about Hugo's ailment anyway. He made Hugo drink a nasty, gawd-awful potion to remedy his gastrointestinal distress. Hugo quickly felt better.

After a few fascinating days at the hotel in the middle of the jungle, we made our way back to civilization: first by river canoe, then by Hugo's taxi, and eventually the gravel on the roads gave way to actual asphalt again.

When we got back to our hotel in Quito, the person at the front desk immediately told us that somebody from the coastal town of Manta had been frantically calling and leaving messages, trying to get in touch with Dorothy.

It turned out that when Dorothy had first arrived in Quito a few weeks earlier, she had sent a message to a former student of hers, Maria, just to politely say hello and let her know that she was visiting her country. Dorothy had no expectation of actually meeting Maria.

However, once Maria discovered that her beloved former teacher was in Ecuador, she insisted that all of us come down to Manta to visit. But how to get there?

Ecuatoriana was Ecuador's international airline. TAME (at the time owned by the Ecuadorian Air Force) was Ecuador's domestic airline. Ecuatoriana flew aging 707s; TAME flew aging Lockheed Electra turbo-props. Ecuatoriana might not adhere to a posted schedule; TAME might not adhere to a posted destination. We all went to Quito's airport hoping to get onto a flight that landed at either Manta or the nearby town of Portoviejo (pilot's choice?). We made it onto the 1950s-vintage plane and landed in Manta half an hour later.

While I stood at the airport in Manta, waiting for our luggage to appear and wondering what I was doing there to begin with, somebody tapped me on my shoulder. I turned around to find a young woman, only a few years older than me, who looked vaguely familiar.

"Excuse me, but do you go to HSPVA in Houston?"

I will leave it to statisticians to determine the odds that two people - one a freshman theater major, the other a senior vocal major - from the same small fine-arts magnet high school in Houston, Texas, would somehow end up at the same little airport, in the same coastal city of Ecuador, at the same time in July 1988. I consider it a cool, random encounter. It turned out that Camille was spending the summer volunteering for the Amigos de las Americas program in Ecuador before she went on to college.

We met Maria, and her sons Italo and Renzo, and they took us back to their house in Manta and we spent several days there, eating ceviche and exploring the coast and making friends that I still have to this day. Italo, in fact, would later come to Houston and stay with my family while taking english courses ahead of college; he eventually graduated from the University of Houston.

We flew back to Quito, Dorothy flew back to Temple, dad finished his last course, and in early August, Hugo took us on another journey: this time to Cuenca, Ecuador's third-largest city, located in the southern part of the country.

This time it was my brother's turn to deal with intestinal discomfort. David was not feeling well as we stopped at restaurant in the town of Cañar on our way towards Cuenca. He put his head down on the table and refused to order while the rest of us made our choices off the menu. Hugo ordered the "caldo de pata de gallina." They brought him a bowl of soup with a chicken's talon sticking up out of it. My brother looked up. Hugo picked the chicken foot up out of the bowl and began eating what little bit of meat was on it. My brother's face turned three different shades of green.

The route from Cañar to Cuenca was cool and misty and green and it reminded me of my trip to Ireland just a few years before. Cuenca, likewise, felt uncannily European: is its cool climate, its church spires sprinkled about the skyline, the Spanish Colonial architecture, the city encircled by what seemed to be a wall of mountains... It's a place I truly need to revisit before I die.

One of the highlights of our trip to Cuenca was El Cajas, the national park just outside of town. The park is alpine in nature; there were many llamas there, and as David and I learned, they were not always the world's friendliest animals. We came upon a mother llama and its young offspring, and we walked over to the pair to see if we could pet them. Not a good idea... The mother llama considered us a threat to her baby, and proceeded to jump up on her hind legs and topple David over to the ground. The llama tried to do the same to me, but did not succeed. Hugo warned, "uh-oh, Tommy, la llama se enoja" - the llama is angry - and chased the unfriendly animal away with a stick.

On the way back to Quito, Hugo took us down out of the mountains - I'll never forget reaching the edge of the Andes and looking out over the tops of the clouds bunched up against the mountains, as if we were descending by airplane and not by car - and to the coast of Ecuador, where the roads were straighter and flatter and the trip back to Quito would be quicker.

On the way, we passed coffee and banana plantations. Outside of Santo Domingo we visited some Colorado Indians, which were characterized by their shortly-cut hair dyed with red berries. We painted our faces with some of the berries. Afterwards, we took the long, winding road along the Rio Toachi back up the mountains to Quito, stopping at "El Poder Brutal," a huge face of a devil carved into the side of the mountain, and listening to the new President Borja give his long inaugural speech on the radio. (He and his successor both managed to complete their terms of office; a decade later a series of coups would end this rare period of Ecuadorean political stability.) It was late evening when we finally returned to our hotel.

And it was just a few days later that we returned to home Houston - once again, a day later than planned, thanks to Ecuatoriana. The summertime adventure was over.

I recounted all these stories, and more, to my friend Gwen so many times that she can probably tell them better than I can. At the time, I could only vaguely perceive how transformative that summer had been to me; my "what did you do last summer" story was pretty much "I spent all summer in a little South American country that doesn't even have a McDonald's" and that was that. As time went on, however, I began to realize just how profound an experience that was for me: being immersed in a nation that was both environmentally and culturally diverse; seeing things few Americans got to see  (at the time most American tourists came to Ecuador to see the Galapagos and maybe colonial Quito); visiting bustling markets and opulent 17th-century cathedrals; being invited into large, comfortable homes along the coast as well as destitute rammed-earth huts in the mountains; all while being in transition from childhood to adolescence, where experiences have an outsized effect on one's cognitive growth.

Something about that little nation that kept drawing me back. I returned to Ecuador (by myself) to visit the family in Manta the following summer. Dad was awarded a second Fulbright in 1990, so we spent a second full summer there; revisiting a lot of the same sights and seeing many new ones, including the Galapagos Islands. That summer it was my grandfather's turn to fly down and stay with us for a few weeks. Another solo trip occurred in 1993, when I was in college. My then-girlfriend and I traveled there in 2001. All of these trips have stories of their own.

I haven't been back since. I regret that.

Things have changed a little bit since 1988. Ecuador adopted the US dollar as their currency over a decade ago, so things aren't quite as cheap as they were back when there was the ever-inflating Sucre. Quito has become a trendy travel spot and is even being compared to New York City. As of 2001, it had a real McDonalds. Lori and I went there and I had a Quarter Pounder, just because. Quito is even building a subway now! No more dangerous winding roads in the county, either; Ecuador now has actual freeways.

Ecuatoriana no longer exists, which is probably a good thing. TAME is no longer run by the Ecuadorian military; it flies modern aircraft and serves a variety of domestic and international destinations. Today, if I want to get to Ecuador, I don't have to fly through Miami; I can just go up to Bush Intercontinental and take United's daily non-stop to Quito. It wouldn't surprise me if Southwest started flying to UIO from Hobby in the near future, too.

The family in Manta are friends on Facebook. We talk about getting together sometime. I don't know if Hugo is still around. Every possible permutation of "Hugo Herrera Hotel Quito taxi" I put in the Google search bar or in Facebook turns up nothing. Camille is a successful opera singer in New York City.

Things change, but the summer of 1988 in Ecuador, is something that changed me. And I'll have that experience forever.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Why there isn't an Interstate between Houston and Austin, and why there won't be one anytime soon

In spite of its size and its extensive highway network, Texas is one of only eight states in the union that does not have an Interstate highway directly linking its largest city to its capital city* (that is, in states where those two cities are not one in the same, e.g. Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, etc.). The Austin American Statesman's Ben Wear explains why:
Plans for a national grid of superhighways had been kicking around for at least 20 years before Congress in 1956 managed to pass a landmark bill, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, that funded the final engineering and construction of such a system. President Franklin Roosevelt, according to “The Big Roads,” a history of the interstate system published a few years ago, in the late 1930s sketched out his version of an interstate system from his Oval Office desk.
And the plain fact is that when this routing work was going on, Austin didn’t have the people or the prominence it does now. San Antonio in 1955 had almost 500,000 people, while Austin had 160,000 and virtually no industry to produce the sort of truck traffic that was to be a major user of this cross-country highway system.
San Antonio did.
“That’s where the traffic wanted to go,” said Richard Ridings, a senior vice president with the venerable engineering firm HNTB Corp. The company was deeply involved in the original design of the interstates, said Ridings, who has been working in civil engineering for 55 years. And anyone looking at the big picture back then would have started with the port of Houston and its cargo headed inland.
“They wanted to get that stuff north, and they wanted to get it west and east,” Ridings said. “At the time, Austin was almost an afterthought.”
Since that time, of course, things have changed: San Antonio now has 2.5 million people, but Austin has grown into a considerable metropolis of its own, with 2.1 million inhabitants - larger than the municipalities of San Francisco, Boston, Denver or Washington, DC - and a thriving, tech-focused economy. 

So maybe it's time for TxDOT to consider finally making that Interstate connection between Houston and Austin. The easiest way to do that would be to upgrade either US 290 or State Highway 71 - both of which are already mostly divided highways - into an Interstate, right? After all, there are already a few stretches of Highway 71 - the bypass around La Grange being an example - that appear to have been built to Interstate standards. 

Well, it's actually a lot harder than it sounds:
The U.S. interstate system was essentially built out by 1990, although there have been some additions in the years since. But turning Texas 71 into an interstate between Austin and Columbus, a distance of about 90 miles, would be tremendously expensive and disruptive. 
Interstates have certain standards of curvature and slope that could require some rerouting, but, most of all, interstates are what is known as controlled-access highways. Meaning, no driveways. If you want to get on or off an interstate, you have to take a ramp. 
That means that either no businesses, homes, farms or ranches can connect directly to the highway for miles at a time or, as is the case on Interstate 35 through the heart of the state, there are frontage roads. 
Texas 71, other than in Austin and through Bastrop’s commercial district, has no frontage roads. And it has scads of roads and private drives entering it throughout the other, more rural sections. So to turn it into interstate now would require TxDOT not only to acquire a lot of right of way for what would be a wider highway in many places, but also to pay some property owners for lost access to the road. 
Or, more likely, to build many, many miles of frontage roads. Either way, the cost would be enormous. This isn’t a project that’s going to happen in the foreseeable future.
There's also, of course, the issue of what an Interstate between Houston and Austin would be numbered, because Interstate 12 already exists and Interstate 14 has recently been taken. 

TxDOT's near-term plan, instead, is to upgrade SH 71 at major intersections by creating grade separations, thereby eliminating congestion and delay caused by traffic lights.
Right now, there are just five traffic signals left on Texas 71 between Interstate 35 in South Austin and I-10 in Columbus, all of them between Austin and Bastrop. And TxDOT has engineering plans and money set aside to eliminate four of those lights by adding overpasses over the next four years. The fifth one — at FM 1209 just west of Bastrop — is in the cross hairs as well, but the timing of its removal is less certain, TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy told me.
Speaking as somebody who traveled between Houston and Austin on a regular basis when I was a graduate student in the late '90s, I'm glad that TxDOT finally replaced the interminable gauntlet of traffic lights west of Bastrop with an actual freeway section. More recently, TxDOT has been working on Highway 71 on the east side of Austin, creating overpasses (albeit tolled ones) in the vicinity of Bergstrom Airport that allow motorists to avoid traffic lights. 
TxDOT has set aside $48 million to build overpasses at Ross and Kellam — work set to begin as soon as fall 2019 and be done by summer 2021 — and $52.6 million for overpasses at Tucker Hill and Pope Bend. That second set of projects, TxDOT hopes, will start in fall 2020 and be done by summer 2022. All of this, TxDOT officials caution, could be delayed somewhat by environmental clearance work and acquisition of right of way.
The FM 1209 overpass, TxDOT estimates, would cost an additional $35 million. That money has not been nailed down.
McCoy, by the way, said he would like to make similar progress on U.S. 290, the northern route to Houston, but it has far more traffic signals standing in the way.
So, something like five years from now, a driver might be able to get to and from Houston on Texas 71 without hitting a red light.
That’s assuming, of course, that yet another traffic signal or three aren’t added in the meantime.
Upgrading State Highway 71 (and US 290, for that matter) to an Interstate-standard highway will be a long, slow, piecemeal process, kind of like we're currently seeing with Interstate 69. It may happen one day, but it won't be anytime soon.

* Alaska (no Interstates to begin with, and Juneau is geographically isolated), Florida (requires two Interstates to travel between Tallahassee and Miami), Missouri (Jefferson City is not connected to an Interstate), Montana (requires two Interstates to travel between Helena and Billings), Nevada (Carson City has a relatively new Interstate connection to Reno, but not Las Vegas), North Carolina (requires two Interstates to travel between Raleigh and Charlotte), South Dakota (Pierre is not connected to an Interstate), and, of course, Texas.